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Does Remote Work Weaken a Company’s Culture?
A week doesn’t go by without reading about the “Great Resignation,” accompanied by an array of recommended measures to mitigate this trend, ranging from better benefits to outsourcing jobs to positioning remote work as a boost for work-life balance. Many organizations have taken steps to provide a remote-work benefit. A survey of 2,800 senior managers from staffing firm Robert Half found that 41 percent gave employees the ability to choose when they work. It’s admirable that companies want to give workers more flexibility, but what if one of the reasons for employee attrition is remote work itself? Are employers trying to solve a problem with a trend that is part of the problem itself?
The Need for Organizational Socialization
Many human resource management practices categorize the employee lifecycle model in six stages: attraction, recruitment, onboarding, development, retention, and separation. These stages necessarily have an emotional connotation to them. Employment is a large part of most people’s day. Given an equal or better choice, few people will stay at a job without an emotional connection to it other than their paycheck, so it makes sense that the middle stages (onboarding, development, and retention) are vital for a new employee to be socialized into an organization in order to have that connection.
Plenty of HR literature on employee retention cites the Handbook of Socialization, Theory, and Research by Joan E. Grusec, Ph.D., and Paul D. Hastings. A much-referenced chapter on employment, “New employee organizational socialization: Adjusting to new roles, Colleagues, and Organizations,” explains the formal and informal processes necessary to socialize employees. The more socialization, the better the outcome: “Job attitudes include organizational commitment and job satisfaction, as well as intentions to stay with or leave the organization, all of which have implications for employee behavior. Behaviors including task performance and helping behaviors at work are commonly assessed and conceptualized as outcomes of effective organizational socialization practices. Other behaviors, such as whether or not employees leave the organization, are considered important outcomes of effective socialization practices.” When addressing the formal new employee orientation process (NEO), the research shows that in-person processes are more effective; “Work on the difference between remote and in person NEO attendance shows that those attending remotely reported to be less well socialized.”
I had a conversation with a young woman who became a mother at the beginning of the shutdown (March 2020) and recently started a position with a new organization working primarily from home. She said, “It’s hard to get to know how a company runs when you are working remotely. Even conversations you would overhear (on-site) between coworkers tell you things about the company. When you are remote, you only hear from coworkers when they need something.” It’s important to note that her specific job activities aren’t constrained by remote work, and here in greater Los Angeles, we have plenty of bandwidth. The company also has great benefits and a good onboarding process. There are things that just “happen” at a job that you cannot replicate with an intentional process in remote work.
The Pressure of Innovation
Some jobs are very satisfying with a high degree of creativity that requires large time commitments. MIT conducted a study in 2021 and found a larger number of resignations between the most innovative companies and their more-traditional counterparts:
“It’s not surprising that workers leave companies with toxic cultures or frequent layoffs. But it is surprising that employees are more likely to exit from innovative companies. In the Culture 500 sample, we found that the more positively employees talked about innovation at their company, the more likely they were to quit."
“The attrition rates of the three most innovative Culture 500 companies — Nvidia, Tesla, and SpaceX — are three standard deviations higher than more traditional companies (e.g., Being, Ford, and Intel) in their respective industries. Staying at the bleeding edge of innovation typically requires employees to put in longer hours, work at a faster pace, and endure more stress than they would in a slower-moving company. The work may be exciting and satisfying but also difficult to sustain in the long term. When employees rate their company’s innovation positively, they are more likely to speak negatively about work-life balance and a manageable workload. During the Great Resignation, employees may be reconsidering the personal toll that relentless innovation takes.”
Would the outcomes have been different if the innovative employees had remained on-site? Did moving to remote, disconnected positions cause a regression in the socialization that the Handbook of Socialization shows is vital to long-term success, even in a less demanding job?
Is More Technology the Solution?
To many in the IT industry, the solution is as simple as more technology: the closer we can get to providing an experience on par with in-person interactions, the less we need the in-person interactions. Collaboration vendors have made great progress in adapting meeting room technology to a remote or hybrid workforce. For example, new conferencing platforms will present every participant on screen as an equally sized, individual head whether in the conference room or remote. This puts all meeting attendees on the same level. This works fine for a team meeting with colleagues that interact together regularly, but it does not increase employee visibility organizationally. If the benefit is an increased opportunity to become more visible across the organization, it would occur in much larger meetings that include multiple teams and senior managers. If everyone’s mics are active, there’s a lot of noise. What’s the solution? “Everybody mute who’s not scheduled to speak, and turn off your camera.” So much for the democratized meetings, which end up more like a webinar with a few select speakers.
Comparing Remote Work to Social Media
Even if we can solve the issue of equal camera time or create metaverse levels of immersion, does this help mitigate the weakening of socialization and on-site company culture? It’s contradictory that we enthusiastically discuss how social media familiarity will affect the future of work but are silent on how anxiety and depression intensified by social media may replicate itself in a social media-style work environment.
In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle discusses the inauthenticity of social media. "When part of your life is lived in virtual places ... a vexed relationship develops between what is true and what is 'true here,' true in simulation." Our profile may end up as somebody else, the fantasy of who we want to be. Although we may feel "enhanced" online, we may be left with real lives of less. "Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone.”
Think again about the overheard conversations and unintentional acclamation that the newly hired remote employee mentioned. Not only do they go away, but in a remote environment, employees can create a more controlled version of themselves and end up under the same pressure to maintain the persona in their work-life, in which many on social media succumb.
Interaction Between Office Staff and Other Employees
Most of the jobs in the U.S. aren’t office jobs. Industries such as retail trade, hospitality, manufacturing, construction, transportation, warehousing, mining, and utilities comprise about half of the jobs—but there are also non-office jobs in the service sectors of health care, education, state, and federal government. Some supervisors or managers work with office staff and frontline/logistical staff. These people are the gatekeepers between those two communities. Any additional interaction between administrative staff and non-office employees is less formal and will not happen if administrative employees are off-site.
For example, in an onsite environment, a senior manager may walk through a warehouse, yard, or factory and watch things happen. At the same time, logistical jobs can be more repetitive and less creative, which allows for conversation and banter to happen at a level that would not be acceptable in an office environment. When “the boss ” comes around, employees quiet down and straighten up. Each is their own culture within the company culture. Attempts to try and integrate electronic collaboration between the warehouse and knowledge worker staff could be perceived as surveillance and affect morale. If the attempt is to engage the front-line worker, then electronic solutions may have an opposite effect.
Even formal interaction can suffer. I spoke with a construction foreman for a large national firm, who shared that since their project managers have been remote, “every decision is slower.” They still visit job sites but work from home instead of the office, and that disconnect creates a bottleneck for change orders.
The Jury is Still Out on Hybrid
The young woman I spoke with about her new remote job was enthusiastic about the hybrid element of her work. She saw it as a chance for new mothers to prove that they can maintain a work-life balance and be productive. It was great to hear this positive outcome from an arrangement that might not have been offered other than out of necessity. As much as the benefits are touted in numerous business publications, mass adoption of hybrid work arrangements began as a pandemic-related compromise to a full-time return to the office. The sentiment towards hybrid work arrangements isn’t reliable and maps too closely to pandemic conditions to declare it the “new normal.”
One example is a running survey of HR leaders and employees on employee engagement trends by TINYpulse, an employee engagement platform. In August through September of 2021, In Q3, the prior survey indicated decreasing favorability towards hybrid work from both employers and employees. The current survey declares that “Hybrid is Here to Stay. HR and employees increasingly favor hybrid work and becoming less favorable to RTO (return to office)” based on data collected in Q4 2021, while the world was struggling with two COVID variants. At the same time, the most recent survey found that “HR/business leaders reversed their previous preference for hybrid work for optimizing work performance. In-person work increased 131.8% in Q4 as the best arrangement for optimizing performance.”
I don’t believe there will be a full picture of permanent work arrangements until we are completely unrestricted by COVID policies. But already, more people are going to crowded events than in the last few years, even while their offices remain closed. There are some great benefits to hybrid work, from decreased traffic congestion to allowing employees with a minor cold to work at home. From a business continuity standpoint, businesses have been forced to become more resilient. There are benefits, but employee engagement and productivity will matter more. If in-person engagement cannot be replicated remotely by technology, the new normal could end up looking a lot like 2019.